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Maybe you’ve heard of it, and maybe you’re wondering what is a hammam? The Moroccan hammam is one of the most widely loved and yet puzzling experiences for people who have never visited or Morocco nor had the opportunity to try a hammam. Many “must do in Morocco” lists include take a hammam but just what does that mean and why is it such a revered tradition?
It’s hard to imagine but not so long ago it was very uncommon for people to have their own shower or bath in their homes. I can remember my grandparents telling stories about taking a bath in a metal tub once a week. Water, and especially hot water was a precious commodity before the era of hot water heaters. In Morocco a practical solution was created to get around this difficulty. The hammam.
Today you’ll find a wide range of hammams in Moroccan cities. The most traditional variety are found in neighborhoods everywhere. You also will find luxury hammams in major cities. A third variety are a step up from traditional hammams but more affordable than luxury style. Depending on which you will visit, your experience will vary.
Visiting a Luxury Hammam
If you opt for a more upscale hammam your experience will be similar to that of a spa. While each is slightly different you’ll be asked to undress (leave on your underwear), and given a robe. You’ll be escorted to a warm/hot room and asked to sit and relax. Next, savon beldi is used and rubbed all over then rinsed off.
Now comes the interesting part.
Using a kess, an exfoliated hand mit, a woman will scrub your entire body. Yes, it may feel rough but this is what removes the dead skin. If it’s too hard, let her know! Bshwiya means slow down or soften up. You may be asked to turn over, move around or lay down. Once she’s satisfied then she’ll either continue bathing you by washing off with your soap, and shampooing and rinsing your hair as well or she’ll leave you to do this alone. The entire process takes 30-45 minutes.
Visiting a Neighborhood Hammam
What you’ll need to bring;
- a full change of clothing
- savon beldi (a blackish looking soap made with olive oil)
- a kess
- your own regular soap and shampoo
- water bucket and small cup or bucket for scooping water
- a small foldable mat for the floor
- razor, facewash and any other toiletries you use when bathing
- a towel and/or robe
- plastic flip flops or other shoes that can get wet
- brush and any other products you use after a bath
Going to a neighborhood hammam is a completely different experience. One of the biggest differences is that the screen of privacy is removed. A local hammam reminds me of a three part locker room shower house. On entering you will pay someone, usually a woman at the entrance. If you want to bathe yourself it’s 10-20 dirham (depending on the hammam), if you want to be scrubbed it’s about 50 dirham.
The next room you enter has long benches. This is where you change your clothing. What do you wear in a hammam? Nothing, or at least very little. Take off everything, except your underwear, wrap up in your towel and wear your flip flops. You’ll then give your bag of clothing to another woman who monitors the cubbies of belongings. Take with you the items you need for bathing (soap/shampoo etc).
You’ll then be greeted by the woman who does the scrubbing. For someone who has never been to a hammam it may be a shock to discover not only will your attendant will also likely be naked aside from underwear, the hammam is full of other women of all ages in a similar state. Most people are caught off guard as they assume the conservatively dressed women outside would be more guarded. Not so.
Your attendant will bring you into the bathing area and set aside your towel. Once inside you’ll notice three different rooms. They start with a warm room, than a warmer room and finally the hottest room. Let her lead the way! Find a spot and get yourself set up. She’ll use your water bucket and possibly others that are there to use. You’ll want to remember only to use your water buckets. They’re filled by spigots in each room and that can mean a wait at times if the hammam is busy. Don’t steal someone else’s bucket!
After rinsing off you start by using savon beldi and rubbing it all over. Leave it on for 5-10 minutes, sit back and relax. Moroccan women go to the hammam as much for a bath as they do to catch up on gossip! When it’s time your lady will come back and rinse you off. She’ll ask for your kess and will start scrubbing. This isn’t a delicate procedure! Remember bshwiya means go softer. You may feel like a toddler again being flipped over and handled while she ensures you’re cleaned top to bottom. When she’s satisfied she’ll start rinsing away all the skin that’s been removed.
Then you’re on your own to soap up and rinse off, wash your hair, shave your legs whatever it is you typically do in the bath. She’ll continue to bring you water to use as needed. When you’re done, gather up everything and make your way back to the changing room to get dressed. Voila! Expect to spend at least 45 minutes at the hammam but take your time. Many Moroccan women spend several hours!
Hammams in Morocco are very unique and can be a wonderful way of experiencing local culture. Leave your modesty at the door and let the experience speak for itself. Trust me, you’ve never felt as clean as you will after a hammam!
My recommended Marrakech hammams;